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2000s Archive

China Bold

Originally Published April 2003
After a decades-long decline, Chengdu’s once-legendary restaurants are serving some of the finest, most inventive food in the nation.

Xiao Jianming is a whirlwind of disciplined energy at the wok. With fast, precise movements, the head chef of the acclaimed Piaoxiang (“Drifting Fragrance”) restaurant, in the Sichuanese capital, Chengdu, stir-fries pork ribs with dried Facing Heaven chiles and Sichuan pepper, turning them out onto a serving platter in a lustrous, dark red tumble. Moving with the agile grace of a teenager, he bathes slices of beef in gently heated oil, then tosses them in a wok with fresh shiitake mushrooms; crisp, raw cucumber; and scarlet pickled chile. The only Sichuanese establishment in the province to have received the local equivalent of a Michelin star, Piaoxiang, with its opulent, marble-floored banqueting chambers, mah-jongg rooms, and cigar bar, is peopled with the region’s most discerning diners.

Two miles away, in a peculiar old house once inhabited by a Guomindang general, another high-profile chef is flexing his culinary muscles. In a grand room overlooking the Jin River, Yu Bo, the enfant terrible of Sichuanese cuisine, has just sent out the first course of an elaborate banquet. The guests gathered around the huge table gasp with delight at the stunning checkerboard of square plates cradling no fewer than 24 cold meatless dishes. There are bright, crisp lobes of daylily bulb with celery; crunchy deep-fried peas in a scarlet, fish-fragrant sauce; silky shiitake mushrooms infused with the taste of green onions; and pinwheels of bean curd layered with purple seaweed. Gelatinous spears of aloe vera are arranged like the petals of a flower; coral-pink pickled ginger sits under turnip cut into perfect diamonds; and slivers of lettuce stem are tied into tiny knots. “Anyone can make a delicacy out of lobster or abalone,” says the 37-year-old maverick. “But I like to show that it can be done with the simplest ingredients.”

Lying at the heart of the fertile Sichuan Basin, Chengdu is one of China’s most famous centers of gastronomy. And Sichuanese cuisine, known throughout the world for its spiciness, is legendary within the country for its diversity of tastes. “Each dish has its own style,” goes a saying, “and a hundred different dishes have a hundred different flavors.”

But like every other city in this fascinating nation, Chengdu has had a bumpy past. Though its restaurants flourished in the early years of the 20th century, they were hit hard by four tumultuous decades of revolutionary politics—nationalization in the 1950s, which crippled staff motivation; food shortages and famine in the ’60s; and the Cultural Revolution of the ’70s, which saw the blacklisting of dishes and restaurants deemed feudal or bourgeois. By the 1980s, Chengdu’s once-famous eating establishments were well past their prime, and the city itself had devolved into a sleepy provincial backwater.

A few years later, with the dawn of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, the ancient Chinese obsession with food began to reassert itself, and the nation’s restaurant industry started slowly twitching back to life. Sichuanese cooking, however, remained stuck in the doldrums. At the time, says Wang Xudong, editor of Sichuan Cuisine magazine, “Cantonese food was prestigious all over China. It had the cachet of association with the wealth of Hong Kong, and it was seriously expensive because it relied on fresh seafood flown in from the coast.” Sichuanese food, on the other hand, was thought of as “cheap, rustic, and old-fashioned—not something you’d offer to guests you wanted to impress.”

The establishment in the late ’90s of Xiao Jianming’s Piaoxiang and similar places was part of a calculated effort by local restaurateurs and food enthusiasts to revamp that image. “We wanted to show people the excellence of our traditional flavors,” says Xiao, “and to serve the food in an upmarket environment, with thoroughly modern service and décor.”

The strategy paid off. Today, Chengdu has an astonishingly vibrant dining scene, with more than 30,000 restaurants in the city and its suburbs (an area that’s home to some 10 million people). Partial privatization has breathed new life into a few of the famous old places, and electrifying competition has galvanized the city’s designers and chefs, who are falling over themselves to redefine the cutting edge.

Like most chinese of his generation, Xiao Jianming had no choice when it came to a career. In the topsy-turvy world of the Cultural Revolution, a disadvantaged family background gave him a privileged position that enabled him to avoid the fate of many of his contemporaries, who were forced to labor in the countryside for years. After middle school, he was assigned to a prestigious traineeship in a famous Chengdu restaurant, the Rong Le Yuan (known back then as the Red Flag Canteen). Young, keen, and extremely ambitious, Xiao performed brilliantly, and in 1978 he was dispatched to Beijing’s Sichuan Restaurant, where he worked under the legendary master Chen Songru and delighted such influential guests as Deng Xiaoping, François Mitterrand, and Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk.

But by the early 1990s, when Deng’s economic reforms were unleashing a capitalist revolution, the appeal of working for the government had begun to wane. “My wages were fixed and very low,” says the 47-year-old chef. “And the atmosphere was stifling. There was just no scope for being creative as an individual.” And so, he continues, breaking into one of the lively smiles that punctuate his conversation, he decided to “plunge into the sea” of the market economy. In 1997, he and a friend opened Piaoxiang.

The restaurant’s renditions of such well-known folk dishes as Pockmarked Mother Chen’s bean curd and Gong Bao chicken are impeccable, but Piaoxiang is better known for its traditional banquet delicacies (“cabbage hearts in boiling water,” for example, a soup whose simple name belies its fine taste and minimalist beauty) and dishes featuring extravagant ingredients like shark’s fin and abalone. The chef’s own tastes, however, are more modest. Ask him his favorite Sichuanese dish, and he responds without hesitation. “I’d have to say it’s twice-cooked pork.”

This fabled preparation of boiled pork slices tossed in the wok with fragrant vegetables and spicy, beany seasonings is one of Sichuan’s best-loved folk dishes. And as Xiao Jianming and his staff sit down for lunch after a hard morning in the kitchen, it is at the center of their table.

Yu Bo’s meatless, impossibly artful starters make it clear that his will be no conventional banquet. On their heels come languid, honey-brown strips of braised catfish served in a sleek, black-lacquer case adorned with silver; dark, wild ko mo mushrooms laid out on an oblong green-glass platter with a radiating spray of tender bamboo shoots, tiny asparagus spears, and “petals” made from the insides of tomato skins; and individual china pots whose paper seals conceal sumptuous thick soups yellow with the yolks of salted duck eggs and floating with morsels of camel’s foot, ham, chicken, and fish. In between, dainty snacks—single water lily petals deep-fried into mouthfuls of crispness; tiny steamed buns in the shape of hedgehogs, their quills (snipped out of the raw dough with nail scissors) so fine they’re sharp against your lips—elicit more sighs of pleasure.

A slightly awkward and not terribly articulate man, Yu Bo was born into a well-to-do family of workers (the elite class in the radical Maoist years) but is the first to admit that he’s what the Chinese call “a man without culture.” Having failed a critical exam at the age of 16, he was forced to work in a factory canteen, where he spent five grueling years. In 1985, he managed to get a job as a casual laborer in Shufeng Yuan, one of Sichuan’s most well-respected restaurants, and there, through hard work and sheer persistence, he eventually won recognition as a chef. In 1993, Yu was awarded gold and silver medals at a culinary contest in Beijing.

His two-year-old restaurant, Yu’s Family Kitchen, was tiny by local standards until he relocated it four months ago to the Tianshi Hotel. “I don’t want the hassle of a big business,” says the chef, whose wife, Dai Shuang, acts as manager. And though he’s determined not to let his menus be “dictated by commercial considerations,” Yu admits that he is beginning to make more of an effort to accommodate his diners. Other chefs have always told him his cooking is “beautiful but impractical,” Yu says, and advised him to tailor it to the market.

Not that anyone would accuse him of bowing to convention. What truly sets the chef apart, says local food writer Xiang Dong, is his highly esoteric approach. “He has a ceaseless appetite for study,” says Xiang, “and he wants to make each of his dishes into a work of art.” While many fault Yu for being “too extreme,” says Xiang, “he doesn’t care whether his food is popular or not. He is motivated purely by aesthetic ideals.”

Radical though the results often are, Yu’s ideals are actually rooted in tradition. “I find it tragic that the Japanese have more respect for traditional Chinese culture than we do,” says the chef, who is known to pore over cookbooks and pester members of the older generation for their culinary secrets.

He also looks to Japanese cooks for inspiration. “We’re at least fifty years behind them in our culinary development,” he says. “Their style of presentation is much more sophisticated, and they’re way ahead in their use of environmentally sound, unpolluted ingredients.”

The chef serves even the most traditional delicacies with a twist—slices of his tea-smoked duck, all bronzed skin and silky, aromatic flesh, arrive suspended by red thread from a bamboo frame—and yet when you ask him to name his favorite dish, he, too, finds comfort in convention. “Twice-cooked pork,” he says with a grin. “Other dishes pale over time, but that you can eat a hundred times and never tire of it.”

Given the newly elevated status of Sichuanese cuisine, it is perhaps not surprising that its biggest fans—from chefs to farmers to politicians—are now hankering after the warm, hearty flavors at its core. These days it’s increasingly common for urban nouveaux riches (and chefs looking to get a leg up on the competition) to drive out of town for a taste of humble peasant fare. Most of them end up at the Turtle Restaurant.

Located on a busy road in Shuangliu County, on the outskirts of Chengdu, the unassuming Turtle is the domain of Liu Shaokun, who named it after a dish invented by his mother. “We were a poor family with seven children,” says the small, lively 47-year-old, “and could afford to eat very little meat. One day my father caught a turtle, and since there wasn’t enough of it to feed us all, she braised it with potatoes and homemade chile paste to make it go further.”

The dish, a sublime marriage of rich, meltingly tender turtle and the gentle comfort of potatoes, has become a Chengdu legend. “Lots of other restaurants try to imitate it,” says Liu with a satisfied grin. “But no one else can do it quite like this.”

When he entered the restaurant business (in his thirties, after a fruitless career in the state bureaucracy), Liu was determined to serve the traditional dishes he’d eaten as a child at home. “I think when people succeed in their careers, they become nostalgic for the flavors of their childhoods,” he says. “And as living standards rise, people crave an authentic, rustic style of food.”

A meal at the Turtle is a journey straight into the heart of Sichuanese folk cuisine. There is a subtle fish soup stained pale jade by pickled mustard leaves; braised beef with slender bamboo shoots in a sauce luxuriant with chiles; and fish robed in the brilliant red of pickled peppers and lolling in an exquisite broth. “This is one of the tastes of my childhood,” says Liu of a comforting rice-water soup, pulpy with chopped wild vegetables. “I ate it almost daily during the times of famine.”

Other delights include slices of rich, wind-dried sausages, discreetly aromatic with chile and Sichuan pepper; fragrant twice-cooked pork made with salted mustard greens instead of the more common Chinese leeks; and rustic buckwheat noodles scattered with slivers of chicken and soused in a punchy, seductive, sour-hot sauce. A glorious sequence of colors and flavors, the dinner at one moment excites the palate with spice and boldness, at another soothes with the gentle blandness of boiled roots and gourds.

Save for the gas burners lined along one wall, the Turtle’s kitchen has no modern equipment. Twenty-four young cooks scurry around wooden boards, chopping with cleavers and running out back to fetch pickles and pastes. Liu is a staunch advocate of traditional methods and carefully sourced ingredients, and he makes it a point to use mostly “green” meat and poultry (from animals and birds that have been reared on natural foodstuffs); local, seasonal produce; and, wherever possible, organic vegetables.

His impeccable sourcing doesn’t hurt, but the magic of Liu’s cooking lies in his pickled chile paste. Made from local chiles, yellow rapeseed oil, and salt, it provides a gentle, soothing heat and lends a sumptuous orange hue to his oils and sauces. “We let the jars rest on the damp ground,” the chef says as he shows a visitor around the storage sheds behind the restaurant, “so they absorb the qi of the earth.” He raises the lid of a waist-high jar of rough-glazed clay, and the scarlet flash of freshly pickled chiles momentarily lights up the room. Other lids are removed to reveal the dark, crinkly leaves of salted mustard greens, and lots of that legendary chile paste.

An entirely self-made man, Liu enjoys a lifestyle that would have been unthinkable before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. His large house, which sits adjacent to the restaurant behind a hedge of bamboo, is decorated in the European style, with a grand fireplace, enormous sofas, and an elaborate chandelier. But when it comes to food, Liu Shaokun is Sichuanese to the core. “I do enjoy eating fish with pickled vegetables,” he says. “But in the end, my favorite is twice-cooked pork.”